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Driver Rehabilitation Restores Independence

Barbara Henley was at a car wash when she first realized it was dangerous for her to drive.

“I was stopped at the entrance of the car wash to pay, and my car started moving forward. I thought I was pressing the brake, but I realized my foot was on the gas,” says 80-year-old Barbara. “I was so upset and thought I would never drive again.”

A few years earlier, Barbara had chemotherapy for colon cancer. The treatment caused neuropathy — nerve damage — in her feet, which she could no longer feel. Barbara was quickly losing hope about her ability to drive, until her sister Jessica suggested she learn how to drive with her hands. That’s when they found Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, part of Northwestern Medicine.

Hands On

“Our goal in the Driver Rehabilitation Program at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital is to get people safely back on the road again after injury or onset of disability” says Nicole Thonn, occupational therapist and certified driver rehab specialist at Marianjoy. “Barbara knew that it wasn’t safe for her to drive with her feet, so she learned to drive with her hands.”

Barbara had her car adapted with mechanical hand controls: A hand lever that activates the gas and brake, and a spinner knob that she uses to steer with one hand. There is a pedal guard to block her feet from the pedals. Barbara, Nicole, and her sister and “cheerleader,” Jessica, spent four months in the car together mastering this new way of driving.

Occupational therapists like Thonn have an instructor brake on the passenger side to ensure safety during the learning process. The therapist collaborates with patients and their families to determine the best setup of adaptive equipment.

Relearning to drive after more than 60 years of doing it the same way was difficult, but Barbara had support.

“My sister was with me at all times, and Nicole and everyone at Marianjoy made it so easy,” says Barbara. “They made me believe in myself so that I could do it.”

Freeways and Freedom

All the support worked, and now Barbara is back on the road. She drives to her church, where she’s very involved and teaches citizenship classes for those applying for U.S. citizenship. She’s even driven up to Wisconsin on her own to visit family.

“Barbara is a gem,” says Thonn. “I applaud her perseverance and self-awareness. It certainly isn’t easy to learn how to drive in a different way, but we believe that everyone should be given the chance.”

“When I realized I couldn’t drive with my feet, I was very upset because I thought I would have to depend on my children and sister to drive me around,” says Barbara. “Now I have my freedom back, and I can’t tell you how good it feels.”